Want to buy more local produce? Chances are you may be buying more Canadian vegetables than you already know about. Take for example, that cold, crisp and juicy English cucumber in your fridge.
At Beverly Greenhouses Ltd in Waterdown, Ont., the VanderHout family are owners of a cucumber greenhouse operation that provides high quality, nutritious crops year-round for Canadians, with a growing US export market.
“Jan and the entire hardworking Vanderhout family are fine examples of the passion, people care and entrepreneurial spirit that makes me proud to serve he and the other Ontario Greenhouse Vegetable Growers,” said Joe Sbrocchi, General Manager of the Ontario Greenhouse Vegetable Growers Association.
With 27 acres of greenhouses in production, Beverly Greenhouses is an automated, state-of-the-art facility that harvests four crops per year. The greenhouses are heated, and crops irrigated and fertilized using sophisticated computers, with robots moving along rows of vines reaching eight feet in height.
Mark Gregory, founder of Farmwork To Feed Canada was recently invited to tour Beverly Greenhouses with Jan VanderHout as his tour guide. “Canadians are largely in the dark when it comes to where their food comes from. With COVID-19, there is heightened interest about our agriculture sector and Jan was helpful in explaining his business. Our organization was created to educate Canadians and help farmers tell their stories – so we appreciated the invite – and a chance to tell the story about greenhouse growers.”
VanderHout’s grandfather, a Dutch immigrant, started the operation in 1960 and it is still a family owned farm with great grandchildren now active in the business. While largely mechanized, crops are planted at different times and picking crops is a daily ritual for 50 employees hired locally and under the Temporary Foreign Worker program.
Outside, there is a two-story residence for foreign workers that is often mistaken for the owner’s residence. The modern building has a wrap-around porch and the facility has cooking and dining areas as well as places for the workers to relax and watch TV after their shift is done. “We want our workers to be comfortable – that is how we attract good workers who want to come back each year,” said VanderHout.
While Beverly Greenhouses specializes in cucumbers; greenhouse growers in Canada primarily harvest tomatoes, peppers, while more recently, strawberries, lettuces, eggplants, and beans are also gaining traction. VanderHout is a board member and former vice-chair of the Ontario Greenhouse Vegetable Growers, representing 220 members on over 3,400 acres.
VanderHout said the farm has continued to expand and improve its processes – one example is introducing insects which feed off other insects that are harmful to cucumber plants these are called Biologicals. With increasing mechanization on the farm, there is a full-time mechanic whose sole job is to fix and maintain equipment, according to VanderHout.
The co-owner is asked what his biggest challenges are these days on the farm. On the positive side, his greenhouse operation is surviving the COVID crisis this year and VanderHout said and he wants to keep their workforce safe and healthy. What he worries about every year is perhaps typical of many farmers: how the crops are growing, what are the prices for his crops and managing labour needs. “Cold, and windy weather is especially a worry we have – that is not good for greenhouse growers.” In the summer, a cucumber crop can be harvested in 16 days after planting compared to 30 days or more in the winter, according to VanderHout.
Energy is a big cost for the operation and these greenhouses have their own heating plant, consisting of large boilers that run on natural gas or biomass. One building holds 25 kg bags of fertilizers, with several different types that are mixed to provide the optimum nutrition for plant growth and product quality.
The greenhouse tour continues to a large packaging plant where the cucumbers are sorted and boxed for shipment to a wholesaler in Burlington. There is no heavy lifting in the packing plant, as all the processes are mechanized. From there, the product will be shipped across Ontario and to the U.S. with the long seedless vegetable making its way to major grocery stores as well as local farmers markets and restaurants.
“You can’t appreciate the scope and enormity of Beverly Greenhouses without touring it’s property. Just to walk through each of the buildings took two hours. I was fascinated to see how every process has been carefully designed to maximize efficiencies,” said Gregory of Farmwork To Feed Canada. “After the tour, it’s clear to me that greenhouse operations like Beverly will play an increasingly important role in the future of farming in Canada.”
Farmwork to Feed Canada (F2FC) is a national volunteer not-for-profit initiative by Canadian communication professionals, students, and recent graduates in communications. F2FC collaborates with farmers, and agri-businesses amid COVID-19 pandemic-related challenges to Canada’s food supply and food security, to engage Canadians, pro bono, with compelling stories about their food system and build support for Canada’s farmers, food producers, and their essential skilled workers.